Tourism in Myanmar, including cycle tourism, had been around for a while but was mostly organized by government enterprises. However, in recent years, Myanmar has seen some changes. In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from her twenty year house arrest. In the year 1990, the NLD won the elections. However, their victory was not recognized by the regime.
In 2012, comprehensive reforms for democratization and the opening up of the economy to draw in foreign investments were promised. The promise resulted in the lifting of sanctions from the U.S. government and other European governments against the country.
But change takes time. Most members of the new civil government are former military personnel. Human rights violations as well as numerous unresolved and violent conflicts with minorities persist with large areas of the country still inaccessible to foreigners.
By the second half of 2013, the news came about new possibilities to enter Myanmar through four check points via neighbouring Thailand. I made an instant decision to seize the chance to travel through the country by bicycle, with the intention of getting as close as I could with the local people.
Friendly people and poor roads
I'm already four weeks in Myanmar and had some great experiences. I stayed with Buddhist monks in monasteries, got invited for food by families, tried to camp on a field while fifty people were watching me. I cycled (or often pushed) along some of the toughest roads of my entire journey, got annoyed by the tourism industry in Bagan and Inle Lake and had problems with the police while camping wild. So no wonder that I decided to spend some more time in this beautiful country, although I'm not sure if I can leave to Thailand with an overstayed visa. My plan is to go south. That part of Myanmar was, until recently, restricted to foreigners and is not developed for tourists.
From the city of Dawei, I want to cycle all the way down to Kawthoung, the city at the southern most tip of Myanmar.
The road is sometimes good, sometimes bad. It is mostly parallel to the sea through endless rubber and palm oil plantations. Most of the nights I manage to pitch my tent undetected by locals or the police. As a foreigner, it is not allowed to sleep at other places then certain guesthouses with a special license (and a special tax of course).
The only possibility to get some food are the small villages on the main road. The curiosity, but particularly the friendliness of the people, impresses me again. These people, who often don't possess more than a small bamboo hut and a few pots, make the best out of their lives despite all the difficulties and circumstances. They are always ready to give a smile or to speak out a welcome or an invitation for food or drinks.
Communication on the linguistic level is restricted due to the lack of knowledge of English on the Burmese part, and the lack of Burmese language skills on my part. Of course, a lot of communication is possible without words, even without sign language. I call it communication on a different level, on a higher level. It is even difficult to describe it in words, it is just that you can feel the other person. If you don't know what I mean by that, just try to smile to a strange person and look in their eyes. I'm sure you will feel the connection, that it is just another human in front of you, and you can communicate. But sometimes there is the opportunity for a good conversation - in words and in English.
I ask about the "political change" and the "opening up of Myanmar," terms which often appear in the western media, and the old man starts to laugh. "You really think something has improved for the people?" he asks me. He tells me about the so called "land grabbing," which has greatly increased lately. The government, the army, or army related companies bring land into their possession by supposedly "legal means" or by force, and displace the resident farmer. Those who dare to protest get imprisoned.
The land for a new deep-water port near Dawei, property for several power plants and cement factories, and also the site of many army bases has been grabbed in this way. Compensation doesn't exist; the people have no other choice than to leave their land, which is their livelihood and what they sometimes till for generations.
Many people seem to have no hope in Aung San Sun Kyi. Although posters and offices of the "National League for Democracy" can be found in every village, enthusiastic or hopeful words I hear nowhere.
Most tourists don't know much about these things or they don't want to know at all. Only if you look closely and inform yourself will you notice that in Myanmar, the "Land of Smiles" (travelguide) the reality of life for the population is quite hard. A smile can pass quickly when you read the reports of robbery, rape, and murder by the military, torture, forced labor, and human trafficking, to name only the most serious crimes.
For these reasons, it is astonishing how friendly and at ease the people in Myanmar seem to be. People smile a lot and their smiles are genuine. One day I ask in a small village for food. There is no restaurant, just a small shop, but the friendly lady prepares some rice, green vegetables, and even a small fish for me. After this good meal, a coffee is served and I pull some notes out of my pocket to pay. The woman looks surprised and then starts to laugh. She makes clear that I'm her guest and she won't except any payment. I have the feeling she even didn't think about charging me for this meal. Another time in a similar situation I manage to put some money under the tablecloth; in that way it is good for everyone.
Dolphins and Sea Gypsies
Myeik is the next largest city. The port is busy but smaller, and larger boats are busily loading and unloading. In the market and in shops there are many Thai products, the border is not far away and there is much smuggling going on.
The final stretch to the southern end of Myanmar is still restricted. While two German cyclists came through without a special permit a few weeks ago, a British cyclist had to continue by bus just a few days before. The situation is unclear.
I decide to take a boat to Kawthoung. This is much more comfortable than a bus and certainly faster. The ticket costs $40 for foreigners, for Burmese only half the price.
Several hundred small islands lay in front of the coast. It is the habitat of the Moken people. These people are also called Sea Gypsies. They live in the dry season on their boats, at sea, to fish and trade. Only in the rainy season do they stay longer on land, repair their boats and live in makeshift shelters on the islands. They are sea nomads whose traditional and close-to-nature lifestyle is threatened. The Burmese government is trying to make these people settle on land; oil drilling and overfishing is destroying their livelihoods. Until today, their habitat is still spared from tourism, but unfortunately it won't take long until the first dive resort gets built and the beaches and dolphin appearances are sold out and commercialized by the tourism industry.
The boat trip takes six hours, smaller and larger islands flit past, some of them so small that there is only space for a few palms. The boat stops in between to take up or set down passengers from small wooden boats; there are no piers.
Dolphins appear frequently in the water, it's a beautiful last day in Myanmar, a country which I will keep good in memory and will certainly visit again.
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In May 2012 Florian Schmale set off from Germany to discover the world on a bicycle. His destination was India but once he got there he decided to continue his journey towards South East Asia. At this moment Florian is on the road for over two years, passed 24 countries and has cycled more than 37,000 kilometer. He doesn't know when this journey will end, probably not until he pedals all around the world. Read about his journey at One Man One Bike One World.